The Other Brother

By December 10, 2013Comms

I swear this post is about writing.

I was doing one of my pay-it-forward chats the other day, and we were dis­cussing how to create com­pelling char­ac­ters. I argued that great char­ac­ters were as flawed and com­pli­cated as we are. The person I was chatting with was kind enough to let me spin a fic­tional tale based on the chal­lenges she faced in her own life. It was a neat exer­cise, watching her life story form a com­pelling fic­tional narrative.

I do this with myself. It’s incred­ibly rewarding for mul­tiple rea­sons. Not only does it help me develop the most impor­tant aspect of writing (com­pelling char­ac­ters), but it makes the process one of self-discovery, a kind of studied med­i­ta­tion on your own moti­va­tions. It’s ego­tis­tical as hell, but so’s writing at its root. One has to be an ego­tist to think that others would actu­ally want to pay to hear what you have to say.

A col­league (bitter about a bureau­cratic mire he had been bogged in for years) recently asked me why I had ded­i­cated my life to public ser­vice. A big part of my back­ground is in coun­tering cyber ter­rorism, crime and espi­onage. Com­bined with my back­ground in kinetic ops and hands-on law enforce­ment, it’s a pretty mar­ketable skillset. Banks pay a lot for guys like me. So do pri­vate secu­rity firms like Kroll or the Cru­cible (who trained me) or even Edward Snowden’s former employer of Booz-Allen-Hamilton (who I *almost* signed on with). I could double my salary tomorrow if I really put my mind to it.

I’ve always sought public ser­vice. I’ve never felt com­fort­able in the pri­vate sector. Even in my merc’ing days I knew what I was doing wasn’t a good fit. When I finally entered fed­eral ser­vice things clicked into place. It paid a lot less, and gov­ern­ment workers aren’t exactly held in high esteem, but it felt right.

And not just public ser­vice, but crisis-response ser­vice, armed ser­vice, long hours and tough con­di­tions. Cru­cible after cru­cible. Why? It’s a ques­tion I never really asked myself before.

Some of the why is known to me. A piece of it is my reac­tion to fear. Another is my firm belief that cru­cibles are where steel is made.

But it wasn’t until recently that I fig­ured out the whole of it, and it rocked my foun­da­tions a bit, in that soul-deep way you know is going to impact your writing for the better.

Most of you know about my older brother, the man I wor­ship now as I did when I was a kid. He is one of the most instinc­tively eth­ical and stoic human beings on this earth, thoughtful and inspiring, cre­ative and loving. He is a father. He is an artist. He has saved my life more than once.

What most of you don’t know is that I had another brother. I never met him. He’d be around 54 now. His name was Johnathan.

My mother marks his birthday each year, sends an email to remind us. The email comes with ghosts attached. They flit around for a few days after I read it, putting me into a weird fugue. It’s hard to share space with them: the man he would have become, the woman he would have mar­ried, the chil­dren they would have had.

How he died gets tan­gled in years and grief, and the story changes each time my par­ents tell it, until I can’t tell what hap­pened any more. I know that he wanted to ride his bike some­where, I know they argued about whether or not they should let him. I know that both of them were looking out for him as best they could.

It’s a com­monly held myth that the majority of mar­riages that expe­ri­ence the death of a child end in divorce. The actual sta­tistic is less than 20%. But no one argues the tremen­dous strain it places on a couple. My par­ents were crushed. They felt the slowly spreading spi­derweb of cracks in the foun­da­tion of their union. They needed to feel like there could be some joy in the future. They needed to hope again. So, they had another child right away. Me.

Growing up, I don’t remember them talking about Johnathan much. I don’t think they saw the need. I’d never met him, so I couldn’t feel his loss keenly. But kids are weird. They see the world simply, and the impres­sions you get at that age have a way have a way of sticking around through adult­hood, of forming the foun­da­tion of who you are. I was a kid. All I knew was this: My par­ents wanted two boys. There were two boys before Johnathan died. There were two boys now. Only, one of them used to be Johnathan, and now was me.

And here’s where things get irra­tional. These child­hood impres­sions are vis­ceral. They don’t have to make sense. I’ve written before about trauma, about my belief that it’s not a thing that ever gets fixed. I don’t even think that one should try to fix it. Instead, I believe in building a new life based on the changed person you are. I don’t try to silence the little boy. I listen to him. I acknowl­edge how he feels and under­stand that feeling isn’t going away. You can guess what he felt.

My par­ents wanted two sons. If Johnathan hadn’t died, I wouldn’t have lived. My life is an exchange, his for mine.

It’s not rational. My intel­lect under­stands it’s not true, but that makes no dif­fer­ence. A child acci­den­tally eats a piece of rotten fish and hates fish for the rest of his life. Some­times ethe­real things are so bone deep that they are as real as the ground beneath you. They are a piece of the life you’ve made up. They don’t have to hurt you. They don’t have to hold you back. If you’re honest about the ashes, you can plant flowers in them. You can turn it to good. But to do that, you have to acknowl­edge how you feel in all its splendid nonsense.

And so I do. I tip my hat to those feel­ings: That I occupy a Johnathan-shaped hole in the world. That it is his feet that should be in these shoes, his hands on this keyboard.

But I don’t let it stop me. Instead, I work hard to shape it into some­thing wonderful.

The truth is, I don’t know the kind of person he would have become. I know that I have lived, am living, a good and worth­while life, that there are ways I am in the world that are better than they would be if they were his (and vice versa). I do know that he would have been my brother, and that means I would have loved him. I do love him, as much as a man can love the shade of a person he’s never met.

My friend KJ reminded me recently that I once tweeted that I felt the root of ethics was in living your life like it was bor­rowed from everyone around you. In thinking on this I real­ized that mine is bor­rowed from one person in particular.

His life for mine. Rational or not, I owe for that.

And that’s my superhero origin story. It is a major piece of why I serve. It’s why I will always choose the watch floor and the pilot house and the hurricane’s edge.

Because I owe my brother. And he’s gone. He’s not here to ben­efit from what­ever sacrifices I can make in the time I have left.

But you are.

Author Myke Cole

Myke Cole is an American writer of history and fantasy who leverages a lifetime in military, law enforcement and intelligence service to take you to battlefields, real and imagined.

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